Government, Citizens, and Power

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

A fairly basic element of our entire governance model is changing. Governments have decision-making power, and they're increasingly called upon to share it with citizens. 

Albeit in a range of ways, some more comfortable and certain than others. One way of conceptualizing this is the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) Spectrum of Engagement:

I'll draw your attention to the Empower idea, where final decision-making authority rests with the citizen. I'd like to make a case that, while empowering citizens seems uncertain or risky, it's likely often the best approach and actually solves several systemic issues that we talk about on CPSRenewal.

The experimentation problem

When the system is that government listens, considers, then decides, it's responsible and accountable for the process, the accepted ideas, the rejected ideas, and the outcomes - with all the limitations and scrutiny of government. If the system is, instead, that final decision-making power is in citizens' hands - in well-defined and inclusively agreed-upon parameters - the risk calculation is very different. Government is held to account for the decision-making system, not the outcomes.

In Melissa's last post, she describes her goal of a government that learns by design, which includes constant experimentation and feeding lessons back into the system. But it's still the same organization producing and approving the experiments. We can A/B test two approaches (i.e., having two cohorts use two versions of the same product or service and monitoring the results), but neither version is likely to be radical - making these experiments about optimization of the status quo, not revolution of any sort.

For example, a while back I wrote about an event called Policy Ignite (see: Between Disruption and Incrementalism). The idea is that public servants pitch unconventional approaches to policy development, and a committee of senior executives choose the most promising to further develop and pilot. My take was that if the committee instead chose to approve a pilot exactly as the idea was pitched, we'd get far more novel experiments out of it and learn more. The problem is that by including the "further develop" phase, the committee members became responsible for the ideas themselves.

The recommendation problem

Along most of the IAP2 Spectrum the problem is that citizens' role is relegated to that of recommender, and I'll argue that this is, more often than we think, a bad deal for both governments and the citizens themselves.

A while back I argued against potentially polarizing systems based everyone getting an opportunity to make recommendations (see: How Organizations Plan). Alternativelymaking stakeholders responsible for the final decision does a number of things:

  1. Forces recommenders to think through the implementation of their recommendation, not just the goal
  2. Makes recommenders accountable for the outcomes, not just the conspicuous promotion of the agenda they represent
  3. Removes recommenders' safety net of knowing that someone else is going to further study and assess their recommendation, motivating diligence
  4. Encourages compromise and consensus

An aside: I think the above applies internally, as well: I suspect most employees would submit markedly better work if it went straight into production, instead of being reviewed by a half-dozen others.

In both cases we have a vicious cycle of X (government or an executive) having to keep control because they don't know what would happen otherwise, and they'll never know what would happen otherwise because they keep control.

Assumptions about power

Lastly, I want note that empowering stakeholders is likely less risky than it seems, partially because we misunderstand the level of risk in the status quo because of our assumptions about power. I opened with a believable line: "Governments have decision-making power, and they're increasingly called upon to share it with citizens", but it's actually far less ironclad than it seems.

An IAP2 Canada member, Steph Roy McCallum, put it nicely in a post on Re-imagining the IAP2 Spectrum, and I'll leave it at that (emphasis mine):

“The IAP2 spectrum needs to be re-thought because it is presented as if the decision-maker has the control, and that the Inform and Consult levels are irrelevant at best in our complex, controversial world, and at worst are part of the problem by contributing to polarization and conflict through suggestion that those levels are acceptable in situations where there may be an outcry to be heard, but that the organization doesn’t want or is unable to meet the demands. I think I probably also said that the “empower” level suggests that the organization or decision-maker has the ability to empower others, without considering that communities and individuals have power of their own that is not conferred on them by the decision-maker.